Halloween season is upon us and shrewd amusement venue operators are set to maximise their returns as consumers seek a ‘frightfully’ good time, writes Adrian Lennox

OVER recent years, increasingly sophisticated consumers in the western world have become increasingly vocal when it comes to what is perceived as a cynical move on retailers’ behalf, as corporations ruthlessly exploit the marketing possibilities brought about by various public holidays and cultural celebrations.

While key annual events such as Christmas and Easter continue to act as valid and important cornerstones throughout the year, many have expressed indignation when it comes to supermarkets filling up their aisles with gifts and branded merchandise, well ahead – sometimes months ahead – of the events themselves. Moreover, the true purpose behind the more peripheral celebrations such as Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day are often seen as having become lost amid the incessant, aggressive marketing techniques of manufacturers and retailers. The orld theme park and attractions industry, however, finds itself in a unique position when it comes to special events. Often located well away from the high street, destination leisure venues are, in many ways, immune from the cynical glare of increasingly cash-strapped consumers who feel the retail sector is simply out to squeeze as much disposable income from them as possible. This, combined with the big budgets of many theme parks and the fact that the most successful venues never do things by halves, has helped consumers to reclaim the fundamental meaning behind key events and celebrations. Where a discount store may begin blaring out Christmas songs in early October, a major theme park will put on an impressive fireworks display and obtain the services of meet-and-greet characters, much to the delight of families. Where a greetings card shop may stack an ever-increasingly expensive and gaudy range of Valentine’s cards, leisure resorts will promote romantic getaways, with special dinner-for-two offers in their plush restaurants.

The contentious debate surrounding consumerism and public holidays raises its head throughout the year. However, it is never more hotly discussed than in the small window between summer and winter – specifically, Halloween. Halloween is an annual holiday observed on October 31, which – as all westerners are aware – commonly includes activities such as trickor- treating, attending costume parties, carving jack-o’-lanterns, bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, playing jokes, telling scary stories and watching horror films.

The event has been traced back to the Celtic festival of Samhain, the original of which spelling was Samuin, meaning ‘sow-in.’ The name of the festival historically kept by the Gaels in the British isles is derived from Old Irish and means, roughly, ‘summer’s end.’

The word Halloween is first attested in the 16th century and represents a Scottish variant of the fuller All-Hallows – Even – that is, the night before All Hallows Day.

The imagery of Halloween is derived from many sources, including national customs, works of Gothic and horror literature and classic horror films. Among the earliest works on the subject of Halloween is that of Scottish poet John Mayne in 1780, who made note of pranks at Halloween, as well as the supernatural associated with the night. Elements of the autumn season, such as pumpkins, corn husks and scarecrows, are also prevalent.

Few would argue that Halloween can be a fun time for children, who are permitted to behave in a mischievous, but light-hearted manner. However, retailers have been quick to realise the importance of ‘pester power,’ and now shops are adorned with a whole host of ostensibly useless spookythemed trinkets from early October onwards.

For many, the message of Halloween has been lost on the high street, with any element of fun and mischief taken away by aggressive marketing techniques. The same is most definitely not the case for theme parks, however. Theme parks and other amusement destinations find themselves in a unique position in relation to Halloween, primarily due to the fact that many guests visit such venues in order to be thrilled, shocked and even frightened. Haunted houses, immersive scare attractions and high-end thrill rides are perhaps the best possible platform for adrenaline junkies. Smaller spookythemed attractions, meanwhile, help children to rehearse their emotions, all within a safe, fun context. The opportunity for theme parks to maximise returns throughout the Halloween period is clear for all within the industry to see, and year after year operators continue to up their game when it comes to delivering a frightfully good time to their visitors.

In 2011, Alton Towers theme park in the UK promises to offer the most spectacular – or, rather ‘spooktacular’ – Scarefest to date. The annual celebration of all things creepy will see the park implement additional theming into its rides, while also hosting a range of new Halloween attractions, live shows and weird costume characters. In an effort to instil even more fear into its adult demographic, the resort will also stay open until 9pm each night.

“If you are really brave, why not stay over in our spookily themed hotels,” parks operator Merlin Entertainments dares consumers in its promotional literature. “With a choice of amazing family attractions and extremely frightening scare mazes on your doorstep, you can make your Halloween break as relaxed or as terrifying as you like.” This year, the Walt Disney Company has again chosen to take a notso-scary approach to the holiday. Walt Disney World in Florida, US, has launched a children-friendly after-hours party, which runs every evening until November 1. The event features trick-or-treating, character greetings and popular attractions, all with an atmosphere that won’t scare the little ones. It also includes Mickey’s Boo-to-You Halloween Parade, which starts with the Headless Horseman as well as the Happy HalloWishes fireworks show. These two examples of how operators can shrewdly promote their venues demonstrate the potential of Halloween for the leisure business. However, it also becomes apparent that holiday promotions such as these are also beneficial to the economy as a whole. Six Flags America in Maryland, US, created more than 250 jobs in the run-up to its annual Fright Fest, which has become the region’s largest Halloween celebration, with “epic thrills by day and hideous frights by night.”

A majority of the haunting opportunities available during Fright Fest are in the park’s acclaimed entertainment department. Selected “spooks” will perform in the park’s Halloween-themed stage shows and inspire shrieks and screams in the park’s haunted walkthrough attractions.

Halloween opportunities do not begin and end in theme parks. Qubica AMF is helping bowling alleys and family entertainment centres to conjure up an ‘air of scare,’ with the HalloPin solution. The HalloPin environment includes special horror-themed scoreboard software.Combined with glow in the dark bowling balls and dim lighting, the system is set to be a sure-fire hit among both adults and children.

Halloween is not celebrated in all countries and regions of the world and among those that do the traditions and importance of the celebration vary significantly. However, operators who execute a shrewd, slick Halloween-themed business plan will leverage the already strong appeal of their existing rides and attractions, driving footfall and encouraging that all-important word of mouth advertising. Asmany within the industry are aware, word of mouth promotion is far more effective – and a great dealcheaper – than the technique of continual mediabombardment that has been adopted by otherbusiness sectors.